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marcus gee

One evening this week, a familiar ritual unfolded in a school gym in Parkdale. People from the neighbourhood gathered to view the latest plans for a condominium project at King and Dufferin. Most of those who rose to speak didn't like what they saw.

The project would rise on the southwest and northeast corners of the busy intersection. This was the second time the community was getting a look at it. There were lots of complaints the first time, so the developer scaled back. Instead of 741 units, the project would have 701. Instead of 21 and 19 storeys, the buildings would have 17 and 14. Sidewalks would be a bit wider and the buildings set back a little further.

Architects changed the look of the project, too. Neighbours complained it was out of keeping with the area. New drawings show attractive modern buildings with more brick and less glass.

For many in the gym, it was still too much – way too much. One speaker said traffic was already terrible and "all you're doing is plopping 700 units in the middle of the nightmare." The crowd gave him lusty applause. Another said the project would put so many more people on local transit that "I don't know how I'm ever going to get to work again." She wanted the number of units cut in half. More applause.

Another said it was "absolutely embarrassing" and "totally insulting" that the developer hadn't put any affordable-housing units in the project. Still another, an older man with a British accent, said: "This is the rape of the city by developers."

It was the sort of thing you hear at similar meetings all over the city – pitchfork-angry people complaining about how the latest condo will ruin their lives, or at least threaten their street parking and steal their sunlight.

But as the meeting wound down, something surprising happened. A young woman stood up to speak. She said she was a millennial, one of the generation that came to adulthood around the turn of the millennium. She had given up hope of ever buying a house in this city. Prices were too crazy. Even a condo in nearby Liberty Village was out of reach. She said building more housing in the city might help. "I think this corner needs it." No ovation for her.

A few minutes later, a well-spoken young man stood up. "I'd just like to say this is great for the neighbourhood," he began. "If we're building 20 storeys, that's great." His only regret was that the developer wasn't building something even taller. If the city whittles down every project that might cast a shadow, he said, Toronto will never get the housing it needs. No applause for him either.

Yet, surely these are the voices of the future. We are hearing more and more of them these days. Smart, young city-loving people are starting to interrupt the tired not-in-my-backyard chorus, speaking out for a denser and ultimately more affordable city.

Their argument is simple: Toronto is growing by leaps. Throngs of people are moving here from around the world. They have to live somewhere. Unless we want the city to sprawl to the horizons, as with Houston or Calgary, we need to build more housing within the city's existing footprint.

Intersections such as King and Dufferin are the perfect place. Two major transit lines cross there: the King streetcar and the Dufferin bus. That means many people who live in the condos could take transit to work, leave their cars behind and ease the city's burden of traffic and smog. The new buildings would replace the suburban-style fast-food joints that have stood there for decades, making the corner livelier and more urban. A heritage bank building would be preserved. Far from adding to a nightmare, the project would be big plus for the neighbourhood.

In a more sensible world, the city would be urging developers to build many more like it. It would be telling them to build more storeys, not fewer; to add more density, not less. It would be pushing them to make the most of rare opportunities such as King and Dufferin where they have managed to assemble enough land to build.

Instead, authorities often cave to NIMBY pressure and put hurdles in the way of development. Rather than promoting density, as their own "smart growth" rules dictate, they discourage it with outdated zoning standards and onerous building rules.

Premier Kathleen Wynne took some steps to address this with her new housing package, agreeing to free up provincial lands for housing, look at how to remove hurdles to development and spend $125-million to encourage builders to construct new rental apartments. But in the same breath she brought in expanded rent control that will surely discourage developers from building rental. A few steps forward, one giant leap back.

After the meeting in the Parkdale gym, the young man who spoke up for the condo project stopped to talk for a minute. People want housing to be affordable, he said, but if a developer wants to build something in their neighbourhood, well, look out. "Maybe the reason housing is so expensive is that we're not building enough if it."

He would get no cheers for that from the crowd in the gym, but the rest of us should be carrying him through the streets on our shoulders, just for talking sense.

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